Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Writer's Guide to Psychology

ROBERTA: Lots of times on Jungle Red we introduce our readers to books we wish we'd written ourselves. Today is one of those days for me. Carolyn Kaufman's new book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY, is published this month by Quill Driver Press and it's a winner! Carolyn has had the same cringing reactions I have about the way psychologists and psychology are often depicted in popular fiction. Her answer to that was to write a reference book for writers that dispels myths, explains psychopathology, and demonstrates how psychological treatment is really conducted. And she's agreed to stop by the blog today to answer our questions. Congratulations and welcome Carolyn!

I know my first question is impossible, but here goes anyway. Since all of us on this blog have written murder mysteries and really struggled with how to make our characters believable, I wonder if you
could comment on motives for murder--at least in fiction. Are there stumbling blocks we should avoid when we plan our villains' actions? How can we understand murder from the murderer's perspective?

CAROLYN: I think one of the biggest mistakes writers make is failing to spend enough time coming up with a good motive. Or maybe it’s not a failure to come up with a good motive – maybe it’s just feeling uncomfortable with really trying to understand that motive.

Granted, sometimes we create villains who are psychopaths – cold, remorseless killers who need little motive other than that a killing is convenient, exciting, or makes for an interesting diversion. But for characters who have a better reason than that, I think it’s worthwhile to really spend some time trying to see the conflict from the villain’s point of view. That can help us write more convincing villains.

As I mentioned above, I think many writers are uncomfortable with doing that. They don’t want to delve into a dark character because it requires them to delve into the dark parts of themselves. Being able to do so, however, can make your villain far less of a cardboard cutout and far more of a character. And stronger characters make more compelling stories.

HANK: What do you think are the most powerful motives for wrong-doing? (Greed? Control? Money? Fear? Lust?) And we always talk about how bad guys don't think they're bad--do you think that's true?

CAROLYN: I do think the Seven Deadlies all make for strong motivators. And different psychologists point to similar things as motivators. BF Skinner, for example, believed that the five things people want most are attention, approval, affection, submission of others, and material things. Other psychologists, such as Erich Fromm, agreed that there is a strong human drive to either dominate or submit, particularly when one is somehow overwhelmed by the world.

A couple of motives I’ve been thinking about lately, though, are modern narcissism and Fromm’s theory of how people “escape from freedom.” A little on each:

You’ve probably heard that there’s some compelling research that shows that each generation (starting with the X generation) has become increasingly entitled, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and insensitive to others’ needs. This has led to increased spending and debt as well as increased interpersonal nastiness, some of which leads to the type of interpersonal violence we see in the news.

The recent Knox county, Ohio case, where Matthew Hoffman abducted a young girl and killed three adults, whose bodies he stuffed in a tree, seems to have strong narcissistic leanings. I was asked by one of the local news stations to review the police report he wrote after committing arson some years back (because I’m a psychologist and they wanted an expert’s take on the report for their evening news). Essentially what happened was Hoffman got a key to a neighbor’s apartment and was living in their house when they weren’t there. Eventually he decided he wanted some of their things in his own house, so he took them. And then to cover the crime, he burned the place down…which led to several other apartments burning. Talk about entitled! It’s not enough that he’s watching their TV and hanging out on their furniture and enjoying their art – he just decides to take some home and commits a much larger crime to try to cover the behavior. Though we don’t have enough information yet, I suspect the more recent murders were motivated by similar thoughts. He wanted the little girl, but there were adults in the way, so he committed the larger crime (of murder) to try to hide that he’d taken what he wanted (and felt entitled to).

Fromm’s theory that people try to “escape from freedom” goes something like this: we have so much existential freedom in modern life, and so much personal responsibility as a result. One way to try to cope with that is to destroy things and people. If I feel overwhelmed and even overpowered by choices and responsibility, destruction is a way to try to eliminate the things that overwhelm me. (Hope that isn’t too esoteric.) So to go back to the original question…yes, I think fear can be a very powerful motivator.

HALLIE: Is it possible to remember something that didn't happen?

CAROLYN: Absolutely. False memories are so easy to create that every quarter that I teach Introduction to Psychology, I create (a benign) one in my students. One mistake I see writers making with false memories, however, is that they assume that a false memory feels somehow different from a “real” one. In fact, false memories are as convincing – and sometimes more convincing – than others.

Here’s how they happen. Memory is not like a DVD you pull out of your mental library and pop into a mental player. Rather, each time we remember something, we re-construct it, pulling pieces of the memory together from all over the brain. Over time, new information seeps in, or we fill in parts we’ve forgotten with assumptions, or a newer perspective on life influences how we remember the past. Therefore, most memories are suspect.

False memories are typically influenced by language. For example, if you show someone a video as if they were driving a car, and afterwards say “Did you see A stop sign?” most people will say no. (And they should – there’s no stop sign in the video.) If, however, the interviewer says “Did you see THE stop sign?” most people will say yes. Even more interesting, if you show them the video again, rather than realize that there was no stop sign, they’ll claim you’re showing them a different video. The false memory has taken hold, and it’s strong.

So pay attention to how people question the witness in your stories, including detectives, friends, and attorneys. Any suggestion that the perpetrator said or did a particular thing or looked a certain way can influence the memory strongly. (There’s a reason lawyers aren’t supposed to “lead the witness”…and a reason they do it anyway…regardless of whether the statement is “struck from the record,” the idea has been implanted in jurors’ memories and can therefore influence a verdict.)

ROSEMARY: I think there's a lot of pressure from some quarters to have a high body count in mysteries. I can understand Greed/Lust and Revenge motivating someone to kill once, but how realistic is it for
the non-serial killer, non-career criminal to kill again?

CAROLYN: One of the most interesting things I’ve ever read about the psychology of killing stated that the body counts were much lower in wars that were fought in much closer quarters than they are today, ie when people could actually see the faces of their enemies well. Over time, however, our killing machines have become so much more impersonal – for most it’s much easier to pull a trigger, for example, than it is to stab someone. More than that, though, we’ve gotten desensitized to body counts because of all the television, movies, books, and video games. So I think it’s becoming easier for people to kill, and kill more than once, because the psychological barriers that made killing so horrifying have broken down for many people in the modern world. (Just as an example: the movie The Lost Boys was rated R in 1987; the modern CW series The Vampire Diaries, which is watched by many tweens and teens, includes just as much violence and gore, if not more, and nobody complains.)

I do think you need strong motivation for a non-serial killer, non-career criminal (ie someone who is less likely to have a psychological “disorder” like antisocial or narcissistic personality that makes them more impervious to others’ feelings) to kill again. However, I also think that once somebody has killed once, for many, the threshold for doing it again is lower.

ROBERTA: Carolyn, thanks so much for your terrific answers. Carolyn will be stopping in today to answer questions about writing and psychology so bring them on! You find Carolyn blogging on Psychology Today.
One of her most popular posts is called "Cardboard Cutouts Make Rotten Villains"

Also check out "Psychotic or Psychopathic? on The Vampire Diaries", talking about how psychopaths are different from people who are psychotic -- they've made that mistake on Vampire Diaries, the old "psychotic killer" when they meant to say "psychopathic killer."

She also blogs for QueryTracker

Carolyn's first book for writers, THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior, is now available at You can visit Carolyn’s WGTP website for more information including the media kit and a detailed table of contents, follow her on Facebook, visit her YouTube channel, or send her your psychology and writing question at Archetype Writing, her website on psychology for writers.


  1. What real evidence suggests there are more narcissists in the newer generations? Sounds like the same, centuries-old complaint from geezers...

  2. Carolyn--Fascinating stuff. Thanks for being at JRW today. I just got a last minute B&N coupon for 25% off one item and now I know what I want to use it on.

  3. Oh, brilliant. Brilliant. Off to get your book, too.

    So--Affection, huh? Thank you! Music to my ears.

    I can't resist--tell us more about the false memory planting that you do! THE stop sign and A stop sign is such a fascinating thing..I guess people want to be "right." (Right? :-) ) Or do they want to be "smart"? Or--"win"? Or get approval?

  4. If a narcissist kills to protect his image, would his behavior change after the murder? Would he be haunted in any way by the fact that he took a human life?

    Thanks for your time to answer questions during such a busy time of the year.

  5. I've seen individuals in their fifties seem to realize they've missed out on something. For a woman, maybe a supportive husband and kids, and for a man, maybe a career with prestige and high earnings. They can undermine younger people who have what the older person can no longer hope to obtain. Do you think the older person could hit out violently against a younger person who takes a bite out of self-love?

  6. Pauline, when I got my first job in TV (at age 25) I found an INCREDIBLY nasty (and anyonymous) note on my typewriter--I've always been sure it was from a fifty-something person who thought I was replacing him.

    I mean--nasty. How much further is it from that--to who knows what?

    (He left soon after...and as it turned out, I became his replcement. Haunting.)

  7. Hi everybody -- Sorry to be soooooo late in posting. I got knocked flat by a migraine and was...well, flat until I could get my doctor to call some meds in to a local pharmacy. Now that I am vertical again, however...!

    Austin -- Yep, I thought the same thing until I got hold of the actual research. Jean Twenge (pronounced Twangy, of all things) and Keith Campbell did longitudinal research (ie research over many years) and with many different groups. What they found is that narcissism started to rise in the 1970s, and has continued to go up with each generation since, as measured by responses on a narcissistic personality inventory. And interestingly, not just in young people -- in all of us!

    Now, there has been some research that has suggested that the effects are less than Twenge and Campbell found; unfortunately, there are a lot of methodological problems with that research, so the "proof" to the contrary is extremely weak.

    What is interesting is that the media seems to have a lot to do with the effects -- that is, it's cultural, and it's not just affecting young people. The narcissism is rising in older generations, too -- it's just a bit higher in the young, since they've been raised to it from the cradle. I too was surprised that the authors were arguing that this is an across-the-board problem, not a "young whippersnappers" problem. :)

    I will throw a couple of other wrenches into the mix, though. First, "narcissism" isn't the best-validated concept in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the book psychologists use to diagnose); in fact, it may be the most poorly supported personality disorder in terms of developing the construct.

    Second, I know that *I* would certainly agree with a lot of the things on the narcissism inventory, and I don't consider myself a narcissist. Some because of my accomplishments (ie I earned a doctorate, and I think -- rightly or wrongly -- that that means I have accomplished something many people do not) and some because they just make sense to me. (That kind of makes me sound narcissistic, though, doesn't it? Writing that? :p ) But...I am also a 70s baby, so I am not at all exempt from Twenge and Campbell's narcissism epidemic. (Nor, for that matter, are they...they're younger than you might expect.)

    If you want to check out the research yourself, I do recommend Twenge and Campbell's "The Narcissism Epidemic," which is about $10 on Amazon ( It's easy to read and very interesting, and I'm an advocate of knowing the research. If you still disagree after reading it, you will be able to argue better against it!

  8. Laura -- Yay, I'm so excited to hear you'll be picking up a copy of my book! And the same to Hank!

    Hank -- What I do is...okay, try doing this to your family at the Christmas table!

    Make sure everyone has a pencil/pen and a piece of paper. Then tell them to put those down and just listen while you read a list.

    Read this list of words aloud, about 1 second to 1.5 seconds apart:

    thread, pin, eye, sewing, sharp, prick, thimble, haystack, thorn, injection, syringe, cloth, knitting

    Now, have everyone write down as many as they can remember.

    Most people will remember 7 plus or minus 2 items (ie 5 to 9 items), with the ones at the beginning of the list and the end of the list being the most common (these are called primacy and recency effects).

    So ask who wrote down "thread." Most people will raise their hands. Who wrote down "knitting"? Most will raise their hands. Who wrote down "thimble"? Fewer will raise their hands. Who wrote down "needle"? Most will raise their hands.

    Now here's the false memory -- you never said the word "needle." When you say that, people will say "What?!" So if you want to mess with them, say "Am I lying?" And people will say, "You're trying to trick us!" Then tell them again, "I never said the word needle." Some will be convinced you're a liar.

    Here's what happened. They HEARD the word their heads. (ie knitting [needle]...[needle] in a haystack) But you never said it. But they BELIEVE you said it. False memory.

    I always tell people when they want to interview for a position, always say things like "When I get the position, I will..." rather than "If I get the position," because the WHEN encourages the individual to imagine you in the position, which -- assuming you're a good candidate -- creates a stronger memory of you being "a good fit."

  9. As for how the false memories occur, I do think that people want to be right, and to get approval. But it's also an artifact of the way we remember things, ie through reconstruction.

    Kari -- Hm, great question. Personality disorders -- ie someone with a narcissistic personality disorder -- are different than other disorders because they are *ego-syntonic.* Most disorders are *ego-dystonic*, which means that the person knows something is wrong with him and is uncomfortable with that. Personality disorders, which are unique because they're ego-dystonic, are not experienced by the person who has them as problematic. They think everyone else has the problem.

    There are also two types of narcissists -- the one everybody thinks of, who has a poor self-image and is overcompensating, and the more modern type, which is someone who's been raised as if they're royalty and has such incredibly, ridiculously high self esteem that they can't conceive of the idea that they don't deserve to treat others like peasants.

    So...would the individual be haunted by having taken a life? Well, probably not the same way most people would, and in some cases (especially if the person were the second type of narcissist), maybe not at all. After all, if someone *dared* threaten the narcissist's image, he might feel completely justified in protecting it...or in proving that his imagined image is justified.

    There is a real-life celebrity narcissist who comes to mind who, when caught doing something that should have gotten him a slap on the wrist, ended up in jail for years because he mouthed off to the lawyers, the judges, and everyone else because he was effing so-and-so, and he couldn't conceive of the fact that they could do anything to him. Even after he was put in jail (for years) the first time, he got out and did the same thing, so he didn't even learn anything. His narcissism is just that incredible.

  10. Pauline -- It's kind of like a midlife crisis gone to extremes, right? Yes, I think (especially given our narcissism -- as I noted, it's affecting all generations, not just the young ones) that an older person could certainly lash out at a younger one they envy. (There's one of the Seven Deadlies, right? Envy.)

    People do things most of us would call "crazy" due to envy, and in a world so driven by materialism and idealism, I don't think that tendency is going down.

    Alleged narcissism or not, however, I do think people's self-image is an incredibly powerful thing, and some people will do just about anything to protect that image. Interestingly, many people will even fight to protect a *negative* self image...if they truly believe they are not very smart, or not very talented, or creative, or attractive, they may actually fight to protect *that*.

    I have students do something called The Kindness Experiment, where they are expected to go out of their way to treat others particularly well. Many are extremely surprised by how profoundly changing their behaviors (even if they are "normally nice people") changes OTHER people's behaviors. I've had people tell me it's a life-changing assignment. (I describe how to do it in the Writer's Guide to Psych if you want more info.)

    In any case, I do have a point -- some people do not consider themselves to be nice people. They are few and far between, but they do exist. (I get one every few quarters.) It is so incredibly hard for them to do the Experiment, because for some reason they *need* to be not-nice people. Their self-image is "I am Not a Nice Person."

    (I guess if I had to provide a psychological explanation for that I would say it's probably because they grew up in a nasty environment and had to learn for safety reasons not to trust others or the world. These people always think the world is full of mean, aggressive, selfish people. So to protect themselves, *they* become mean, aggressive, selfish people, and that's sort of their armor against an ugly, painful world. When I ask them to give up that armor...or even just to loosen it a bit...they become incredibly threatened. Their papers pretty inevitably include some aggression toward me in the form of language, and in proving my Experiment wrong, ie that other people don't deserve kindness and will only take advantage of you.)

  11. Sorry about the removed posts. I wrote so much Blogger was telling me things weren't posting, so I'd post again, and I ended up with duplicates.

    Please feel free to ask any additional questions you have, either after reading my responses, or just because new questions have occurred to you! I will be sure to keep an eye on the blog for the next couple of days, at least.

    Thank you all for reading and participating!

    In the meantime, many apologies again for developing a migraine on such an important day!

  12. Carolyn, you are blowing me away.
    In the best of ways. Thank you. And thank you for taking so much time and care with this.

    Migraines. Horrible. I hope you feel perfect again soon. (I outgrew them..knock on wood. May you do so, too..and quickly.)

  13. Thank you, Hank! I really appreciate you being around today during the day, too, probably wondering where I was!

    I'm doing a lot better tonight, and I will never, ever travel without Imitrex again! Thank goodness doctors can call things into local pharmacies.

    It is always an honor to be here at JRW with all of you, and as I said, I'll keep an eye on things for a few days in case people have any more thoughts or questions!

  14. Carolyn thanks so much--we were honored to have you here! Stay well!

  15. Very interesting, Carolyn and Rosemary. I've thought a lot about this--as a writer--and am looking forward to reading the book!

  16. Thanks for all this, Carolyn! Count me for one buying your book, too. Too bad it's too late to put on my Xmas list. :)

    I'm trying the memory test tonight at dinner (having kids' families over)or maybe tomorrow at a bigger gathering. I printed out those paragraphs and now I have to hide them. ;)

    Migraines--I had them for years and only have them rarely now. Hank's right, after a certain Time, they diminish. ALWAYS take your meds with you!

  17. Pauline, when I was a young lawyer, and the only woman lawyer in the office, around 1985, I witnessed an older female receptionist systematically undermine both me and the young women legal assistants -- refusing to do work for us, not passing on messages, making nasty comments to others to sow discord, saying nasty things directly to us -- and I realized it came directly from her jealousy that we had opportunities she hadn't had. I don't have any trouble imagining such a character losing her grip on her already-fragile self-restraint and becoming violent. I actually feared it. (I also worked with older women who were incredibly proud of younger women for taking advantage of greater opportunities and helped me tremendously -- the whacko was an aberration.)

  18. Carolyn -- what excellent Q&A! I too am looking forward to reading your book. I saw an ARC when I met our mutual publisher, Kent Sorsky of Quill Driver, this fall, and it looks great!

    (Glad to hear the headaches are better -- awful stuff, migraines.)

    Leslie Budewitz

  19. Fascinating information! I MUST have your book. Is it available in Kindle? I'm getting one for Christmas.

  20. Kaye -- Let us know how your memory experiment goes!

    Leslie -- Thank you and Cool! Small world! :)

    You also reminded me, with your story, that women are more likely to engage in the kind of "relational" violence you describe than men are (they're more likely to hit someone).

    Also checked out your website -- love what you're doing with it!

    Jackie -- Yes, the book is supposed to be available for Kindle any day now. We have been waiting for some time for Amazon to finish converting the files, and we're not sure what's taking so long. (I am thinking probably lots of people are putting out Kindle editions this time of year, though!)

  21. Think I'll be buying your book, too. Thanks for the education. And what you said about narcissim in general makes so much sense. I can't imagine getting ANYTHING done as an artist and not qualifying for the title.